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When scholars come to write the history of Scotland’s 2014 independence campaign they may conclude the UK was saved by an opinion poll.
It was the startling lead for a referendum Yes vote, reported by YouGov on the evening of September 6, that finally shattered the complacency of a UK political elite that had previously failed to realise the 307-year-old union between England and Scotland was really at risk.
The extraordinary story of how the dream of Scottish independence – long nurtured by a third or fewer Scots – suddenly turned into an existential threat to one of the world’s premier powers is a lesson for leaders everywhere of the danger of taking voters for granted.
While the No campaign eventually won by a margin of 55 to 45 per cent, the panic that engulfed the Westminster elite as polling day approached laid bare the fragility of the union and raised searching questions about the way mainstream politicians dealt with the threat.
It is a mark of how overconfident pro-union UK politicians were about the possibility Scots might vote for independence that many initially welcomed the prospect of a referendum. Thursday’s vote had its roots in the Scottish National party’s stunning success on May 5 2011, when it won a majority of seats in Scotland’s devolved parliament.
During its previous minority administration, the SNP under Alex Salmond, the first minister, had put independence on a back burner. Now opponents thought Mr Salmond, long a proponent of gradual progress toward independence, would be forced into a referendum before he was ready – and would suffer a defeat that would drain the SNP of its raison d'être.
“I sat there watching television and found myself cheering on the SNP,” said one Liberal Democrat minister in the UK government, recalling the night the Scottish election results came in. “If they were going to win, the best we could hope for is that they got a majority and were forced to hold a referendum and finally put the independence issue to bed.”
The next day, David Cameron conceded that Scotland should be granted an independence referendum if the Scottish government wanted it. It was a decision some colleagues would later bitterly criticise. Other states such as Spain have been much less accommodating towards secession demands.
“When I talk to my counterparts in other countries, they cannot understand why we had a referendum at all,” said one UK minister. “Where were the crowds on the street demanding such a thing? Why did you need to do it?”
But other UK prime ministers, including the late Margaret Thatcher, had previously accepted that Scotland, an independent nation until its parliament voted to unify with England’s in 1707, would have the right to leave the UK if it opted democratically to do so.
For a long time, the threat to the UK unity seemed small. The 2011 SNP victory was followed by an 18-month phoney war dominated by argument over the referendum process.
Mr Cameron and his allies were exasperated by what they saw as quibbling over details. They wanted a clear and straightforward Yes-No vote on independence, fearing that allowing a third question on greater devolution within the UK – which polls made clear would be the most popular option among Scots – would allow Mr Salmond to claim victory even if independence were rejected.
To secure a single-question referendum, Mr Cameron gave in on a series of other points, including on the framing of the question. This allowed Mr Salmond to campaign for a Yes vote. Perhaps most importantly, Mr Cameron also allowed the Scottish government to decide the timing of the vote. Eventually set for September 18 2014, this gave the SNP plenty of time to build its case.
But the idea of defeat was not part of the calculation of Mr Cameron or his team, which included George Osborne, chancellor, Andrew Dunlop, former tax adviser to Thatcher who works as the prime minister’s Scottish link man, and Andrew Cooper, the founder of the polling company Populus.
Lynton Crosby, the Tory party’s general election campaign chief, was not involved in the campaign, which relied for much of its organisation and groundwork on the Labour party, with its vast and once-mighty Scottish operation. To be fair to Mr Cameron, Labour was also convinced it would beat Mr Salmond in a toe-to-toe battle on independence.
As recently as this summer, senior No campaigners were more concerned about the size of the victory than the fact of it. “We need to get 60 per cent if we are to avoid a neverendum,” said one campaign insider several weeks before the vote, referring to the possibility of another ballot being called within years or even months in the event of a close result.
All this time, a broad Yes movement was developing, reaching far beyond traditional SNP support. At first it seemed to have little impact. The official pro-union Better Together campaign pummelled the SNP over the uncertainties of independence. The party’s 667-page vision for an independent nation, published in November 2013 and including promises of better childcare, lower taxes and more generous social security, brought no immediate boost to nationalist support.
In early 2014, the No camp lead started to narrow. So pro-union politicians prepared what they hoped would be a fatal blow to Mr Salmond’s plans.
Many who were in the conference room in Edinburgh, where Mr Osborne on February 13 ruled out a post-independence currency union, thought that a killer blow was exactly what had been delivered. Speaking in front of a plate-glass window looking out at Edinburgh’s Castle Rock, the UK chancellor targeted the biggest weakness in the SNP’s economic case – its claim that Scotland would continue to use the pound as it does now, a promise dependent on London’s consent.
Mr Osborne was backed by the leaders of all three main UK parties – and given unprecedented public support by Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the Treasury’s top civil servant.
The assault, delivered by a Conservative chancellor deeply unpopular in Scotland, had mixed results. The SNP dismissed it as bullying and bluff – and polls showed that many voters in Scotland agreed. But Mr Osborne insists he was right and that this week’s No vote vindicated his strategy of highlighting the risks of independence. “It’s a No campaign, so of course it’s going to be negative,” the chancellor has said.
Meanwhile, the Yes campaign was developing into a grassroots movement far more energetic and organic than Better Together could muster. SNP strategists were building on the databases and tactics that had delivered the 2011 landslide. Their strategy aimed to persuade voters first that Scotland could be independent, next that it should be, and finally that it must be.
Still, Westminster was untroubled. Two months ago, Mr Cameron had dinner with a close friend from the corporate world, according to one senior business figure. Of all the things in his prime ministerial in-tray, the business figure recalls Mr Cameron saying, Scotland was “the least of his worries”.
Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne departed for their summer holidays in August in confident mood. Mr Osborne was heard to remark breezily to colleagues that he would “take 60-40” as a final result.
Polling advice provided by Populus suggested the No lead was solid and backed up Mr Osborne’s conviction that Better Together’s focus on the drawbacks of independence rather than the benefits of union was working to stop wavering voters following their emotions and voting Yes.
But public opinion was turning towards Yes. Some credited Mr Salmond’s strong performance in a second televised debate against Alistair Darling, former UK chancellor and Better Together leader. There, he warded off challenges on currency and scathingly portrayed Mr Darling as being “in bed with the Tories”, and the National Health Service as under threat from continued union.
The NHS warning became the central argument of the third phase of the Yes campaign plan, the effort to persuade voters that Scotland would be most at risk staying in the UK. Pro-union politicians furiously pointed out that Scotland already runs its NHS independently, but found many Labour voters easily persuaded that it could be destroyed by UK austerity and privatisation policies.
One Better Together insider blamed the lack of co-ordination between the rival Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats. “If we had had a string of health secretaries coming up to Scotland to say they admired the Scottish NHS but had nothing to do with the running of it, that might have helped. We just couldn’t get our act together,” the insider said.
No campaigners say “the pendulum started to swing” towards Yes in late August, though they are unsure exactly why. By early September, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s campaign chief on the ground, was “deeply troubled”. The cold facts deployed by the No campaign were suddenly being trumped by the optimism and emotion of the Yes side. “There was a shift below the level of logic,” he said.
It was during a visit to Dundee on the first day of September that Mr Salmond first really began to believe the Yes camp could actually win.
The first minister had always publicly exuded confidence – but he was also acutely aware that never in Scotland’s democratic history had independence commanded majority support. Now he saw long queues of people waiting to register to vote, many of them for the first time – a sign of the success of pro-independence campaign efforts to tap the widespread disillusionment with the UK government among Scotland’s often politically unengaged lower-income groups.
“I spoke to these people and they weren’t queueing up patiently in Dundee that day to vote No,” Mr Salmond said on the eve of the referendum. “That for me was the key moment when I became convinced that we had a great chance of winning.”
By the weekend of September 6-7 there was panic inside Number 10, while Mr Cameron was obliged to leave London with a knot in his stomach to stay with the Queen at Balmoral. Mr Alexander and Danny Alexander – the Treasury minister overseeing the Lib Dem campaign – reported that the momentum to Yes might become unstoppable. That fateful YouGov poll put the Yes side ahead.
“We knew a poll was coming which would give the Yes side a lead – it turned out to be YouGov in the Sunday Times. We were at a point where we had to reframe the campaign,” Douglas Alexander said later.
Frantic discussions took place over that weekend between “the two Alexanders” and Mr Dunlop, who by now were the principal players in the fight to save the union. Mr Dunlop hit the phones to try to corral a business onslaught, joined by Danny Alexander and Mr Darling. By Wednesday, a trickle of companies led by Shell and BP were speaking out; by Thursday there was a torrent.
Mr Cameron turned up the heat on business leaders to intervene in the debate, hosting a reception on September 8 in Downing Street. “He left us in no doubt we should speak out,” said one chief executive who attended. The prime minister was also hitting the phones. “Those phone calls can be very persuasive,” said one business figure familiar with the operation.
The result was a wave of business opposition to independence, with companies such as Aviva and Prudential coming out to bat on the prime minister's behalf, although a few – including J Sainsbury, National Grid and Tesco – could not be persuaded.
On the Thursday before the referendum, five Scottish-based banks said they would move their registered headquarters south if there was a Yes vote. But the orchestrated campaign also risked fuelling Scottish resentment of Westminster. Mr Salmond loudly protested against Downing Street “scaremongering” and blamed a hostile BBC for playing along.
Even the Queen joined the fray – her media advisers orchestrating a “chance remark” to a churchgoer near Balmoral that Scottish voters should “think very carefully about the future”. Buckingham Palace said she was strictly neutral, but royal watchers had little doubt about the Queen’s concerns about a break-up of the union, despite Mr Salmond saying he looked forward to her becoming Queen of Scots.
The fightback also had a new public face: Gordon Brown. The former Labour prime minister, had been on the fringes of the No campaign for months, but his refusal to work with the Tories and tense relations with Mr Darling, his former chancellor, meant that he often operated alone. Now he was brought centre stage, making the “positive case” for a No vote: promising a swift transfer of new powers to the Scottish parliament to demonstrate to wavering Labour voters that a No vote did not mean “no change”.
A remarkable speech at a closing rally at Maryhill in Glasgow saw Mr Brown rediscover the fire that had made him such a formidable politician. “Tell them this is our Scotland, our flag, our streets,” Mr Brown growled at an audience cowed by months of being told by Yes campaigners they were not “true Scots”. Unlike the mild-mannered Mr Darling, Mr Brown looked like he wanted to thump Mr Salmond; he put much-needed fire in the belly of Labour supporters as polling day approached.
The unlikely alliance of Mr Brown, the Queen and an array of FTSE 100 bosses appeared to stop Mr Salmond’s advance, just days before polling day, and the Yes campaign never recovered its momentum. “There was a real danger that it would slip away from us the next week,” Douglas Alexander admits. “We thought that Salmond would turn the final stage of a campaign into a carnival and sweep voters along on a tide of emotion.”
The combination of economic scare stories and promises of future power seemed to work, while it proved harder than independence campaigners had hoped to mobilise the disaffected urban population.
By the last days of the campaign, pro-union leaders were increasingly confident they could hold the line. On Friday morning, they were shown to be right. The victory when it came was clear. But by voting for independence, 1.6m Scots graphically demonstrated the depth of popular discontent with Westminster rule. For pro-union politicians the two-year campaign race ended not in a triumphant last lap but a panicky late sprint over the winning line. This was far from the emphatic reaffirmation of union they had expected.